Jim Morrison was once quoted as saying The Doors wanted to be as big as Love; the band that preceded them as the house band at the Whisky a Go-Go. To a lot of Doors fans that quote may be linked to the fact the lead singer of Love, Arthur Lee, recommended The Doors to Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman. But both bands’ histories were a little more intertwined than those two factoids reveal. Love was the most influential, innovative band on the Sunset Strip. That innovation was of both music and fashion. It is said the hippie style clothing was taken from Arthur Lee’s personal fashion sensibilities. Through some good fortune, I recently had the opportunity to ask Love’s co-founder and lifetime friend of Arthur Lee Johnny Echols about that time on the Sunset Strip, Love, and The Doors.
Johnny Echols: As a preamble: I have to advise anyone who reads this… I am not politically correct. If I’m asked a question… I’m going to answer that question truthfully and give the facts as I know them. Some of my answers have not been heard before by many of you and may not be what you want to hear, but they are absolutely true!
DE: You and Arthur Lee were childhood friends. How did Love come about?
Johnny Echols: Our families go back a very long way… my grandmother and Arthur’s mother were best friends, as well as co-workers (schoolteachers) in Memphis before my mother was even born. So in essence, Arthur and I were more like brothers than friends. Our families remain close to this day.
Classmate Billy Preston and I had formed a group that was playing at a high school assembly. Arthur, who at the time was really involved with sports, came to see us. He was floored by all the attention we were receiving from the young ladies in the audience and asked if he could join our group. That idea didn’t go over all that well with Billy and the rest of the guys, being that Arthur (a budding organist) hadn’t shown a whole lot of interest in becoming a musician back then.
After realizing how serious I was about having my brother with us, they finally relented and Arthur joined the group as a “Percussionist,” meaning he played the bongos, congas, tambourines and cowbells. He would sometimes sing as well.
When Billy left the group to tour Europe and England with Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, Arthur began singing more and more, as well as playing organ and writing songs. After playing together and gaining valuable experience, the two of us formed several different groups over the years culminating in the formation of the group that became Love.
DE: How did Love become the house band at The Whisky?
Johnny Echols: Ronnie Haran was the booker for the Whisky, and she was also our manager at the time. I wouldn’t consider Love as a “house band,” though we played there quite often due to our ties with Ronnie. We were one of the first rock groups to play the Whisky. Before Love played there, they had a reputation for not paying musicians and for having owners who were really assholes to deal with. We were assured by Ronnie that we would be paid and there wouldn’t be any problems, so we took a chance… it worked out for them as well as us.
DE: How did Love become aware of The Doors?
Johnny Echols: The Doors were fixtures on the Hollywood music scene and Love were kings of the hill who lived in a “Castle,” which was [the] place to be back then. The Doors would often seek out members of our group so they would be invited to our infamous parties. Jim and I became good friends and would often hang out together along with David Crosby. David and Jim were really close back then… though for reasons which I’m unaware of, that friendship had an unpleasant ending.
DE: What did the band think about The Doors? Musically and on a personal basis? What did you think of The Doors?
Johnny Echols: Personally, I liked their music and thought of them as kind of an avant-garde group. Though many other musicians at the time considered them lightweights since they didn’t have a bass player, which gave them a sound more akin to a lounge act than a hard driving rock group.
The Doors could be off and on musically. When Jim was sober and in a good mood, they could sound fantastic, but if he’d been drinking or something had set him off… look out, he would refuse to sing and often just stood there glaring at the audience.
Arthur and I saw something the others didn’t… [Jim Morrison!]. The man had a profound effect on the young girls in the audience, they simply adored him. That fascination would later translate into truckloads of record sales. It was obvious to us that The Doors would be huge.
We got to know them personally as friends and thought they were cool. Further to the point, they were ambitious and would do whatever it took to make it. Even though Jim had a really serious problem with alcohol, they did what they had to… those guys earned their success.
DE: Love was an important band in terms of musical innovation (one of the first psychedelic bands) and a fashion sense, both of which were very influential on the Sunset Strip. Did Love see the trend coming, or was the band out on the ledge and translate it into music and fashion?
Johnny Echols: We as a group lived together, hung-out together and were always playing music or writing songs or simply enjoying each other’s company. When you saw one of us you knew the others were nearby. As time went by we developed a style that was unique to us which carried over to just about every aspect of our collective lives; our style of dress, the cars we drove, our political points of view, even the ladies we chose to spend time with.
DE: Did Arthur Lee receive too much or too little credit for what Love was?
Johnny Echols: Arthur loved his role as “frontman”. The center of attention was where he was most comfortable. As is the case with the majority of groups, the singer receives the lion’s share of recognition. The rest of us were musicians first… and not all that interested in fostering the cult of personality that developed around Love.
Besides being a wonderful singer, Arthur was a poet. A world class wordsmith who was not really concerned with being a great musician so he never spent the time or effort required to become really proficient at playing an instrument. He didn’t need to, he was surrounded by great musicians.
Arthur, Bryan (MacLean), or I would present an idea which usually consisted of some words, the beginnings of a melody and rudimentary chords. Each group member would then write and create the parts they played. We would bounce ideas off each other, often changing the original idea entirely. Which is how most songs were created. So in all fairness everyone should have received a bit more recognition for their contribution.
DE: Jim Morrison once said, at one point The Doors goal was “to be as big as Love”. Love had a record deal with Elektra first and Arthur Lee even suggested Jac Holzman check out The Doors. The Doors went on to national prominence. Why didn’t Love attain the same level at the time?
Johnny Echols: For reasons which I don’t completely understand, within a very short time after forming… Love became absolutely huge in the Southern California area. Our popularity snowballed immediately, young people seemed to take our group to heart. We could fill the Hollywood bowl, the Earl Warren Showgrounds, or comparable venues to capacity, just by word of mouth alone… Unless you were there, it’s almost impossible to fathom how huge our group was in Hollywood. Of course other groups wanted to be that big.
In an effort to capitalize on that phenomenal success, MCA, a much larger and better financed company, offered us an unheard-of deal to leave Elektra and sign with them. Of course Jac Holzman would have none of it. So Arthur and I came up with the dumb idea of hooking them up with The Doors, naively thinking that Elektra would allow us to break our contract and move on if they had another group that was more in keeping with the company’s musical philosophy.
Of course that didn’t happen. We, in effect, sabotaged ourselves, since the profits they made from our albums, which would have gone to promoting Love, was now being spent on The Doors. Over the years we sold millions of records (mostly in Europe) with very little support from our record company. With the proper promotion and less interference from Elektra, Love would have been much, much bigger.
Continue to Part II of our Johnny Echols interview.